Small-Town Horror and Heroines

"Rachel Rising" and "Revival"

by Matthew Derman

8 August 2013

A young woman is murdered and nobody knows by whom, including the woman herself who, miraculously, has returned to life. To complicate things further, she’s not the only person in her small town to recently beat death likes this.
Splash Art: Rachel Rising. Interior Art: Rachel Rising, Revival, Revival, Rachel Rising 

A young woman is murdered and nobody knows by whom, including the woman herself who, miraculously, has returned to life. She’s not a mindless zombie, but also not exactly human anymore, so no one can quite understand what’s happening to her. To complicate things further, she’s not the only person in her small town to recently beat death likes this, and now all the locals are in danger from the same supernatural forces that brought their loved ones back. As well as from their loved ones directly, it turns out.

In the most skeletal way, this describes two different current ongoing comicbook series: Revival and Rachel Rising. They share a lot, even beyond the above synopsis, in terms of theme and setting and, to a lesser extent, their protagonists. They’re both horror stories, or at any rate they fit into my own definition of horror. I like these titles for a lot of the same reasons; the things they share are what drew me to them in the first place. But I would’ve dropped one of them by now if they didn’t also have their own things going on, if they didn’t cover their common ground using divergent paths and paces.

The books have ever-evolving casts, streams of new characters regularly broken up by death. Each story centers on two women, perhaps the books’ most obvious parallel, but they’re not exact mirrors of each other. In Rachel Rising, the stars are best friends Rachel Beck and Clara “Jet” Adams, while Revival is about sisters Dana and Martha “Em” Cypress. The familial connection and age difference in the latter pair is key to understanding their dynamic. They have trust issues, which means they have secrets, to the point that Em doesn’t even admit she was killed and came back until circumstances force her hand. Even after that, she shows little interest in solving her own murder, while Dana, as the older sister and a cop, spends most of her free time working the case. This lack of cooperation between the Cypresses is detrimental to them both, leaving Em with unresolved anger and Dana with too little information.

On the other side of the spectrum are Rachel and Jet, committedly on the same team with the same goals. Rachel puts more serious energy into finding answers—Jet is happy just to be along for the trippy ride—but they share everything with each other immediately. It helps that they each have their own return-from-death experiences, but Rachel’s comes first (and second) and Jet is enthusiastically there for her friend even before she dies herself. Their relationship is unbreakable, while Dana and Em’s may be irreparable.

Though both titles do both of these things, Rachel Rising gives more weight to the internal lives of its core cast, while Revival looks more closely at how something as incredible and terrifying as people coming back to life would shake up life in small-town America. This distinction affects the tone and speed of each story, with Rachel Rising being the quieter and calmer of the two. Not slower, necessarily, in terms of narrative progress, just more subdued. That title’s horror is a creeping dread, a general unease that never dissipates, even when there’s nothing actively going wrong. There’s often graphic violence, but those scenes are usually preceded, followed, or bookended by moments of silence and beauty. Writer/artist Terry Moore seems to be a big fan of silence, and he uses it often and to great effect in every issue. It gives the scariest and most skin-crawling parts of the narrative extra time to seep in, making them more lasting and disturbing.

In between, Moore writes his characters as thoughtful and intelligent, and gives them space to have thorough conversations about the possible implications and causes of Rachel and Jet’s non-dead state. They discuss and debate these things with several people, such as Rachel’s aunt Johnny, who’s a local mortician interested only in the medical facts, or Dr. Siemen, who believes the girls are angels. Moore’s dialogue is patient, taking its time to go over all the angles and arguments deliberately. It is also well-researched, often incorporating history, mythology, or folklore. These discussions flesh out the characters and the story, and allow Moore to get a lot of information out in a short space so he still has room for silence. The combination of scenes with no noise and those that are much wordier maintains the gentle but steady flow of the book. Interspersed with the occasional brutal death or supernatural phenomenon, Rachel Rising is entrancing, a series that is at once quiet and disquieting.

Revival offers more of a heart-pounding kind of horror. High-speed snowmobile chases, scythe fights, kidnappings that result in violent rescues…there is action in Revival, loud and fast-paced and in-your-face, where Rachel Rising is more restrained, even when folks are dying. Neither is better or more effective, but the difference is noteworthy, and a major part of what distinguishes these books from one another.

Along the same lines, Revival seems to be in a pattern of telling shorter, complete crime stories while it more gradually develops its larger central mysteries. There have been three such tales told in their entirety thus far: Arlene Dittman’s murder/suicide, Anders Hines’ revenge against his children, and the Check brothers illicitly selling body parts of people who came back to life. Each of these briefer, simpler narratives help to fill in the bigger questions of the series, but at the same time provide some short-term payoff for the reader. And each of them explores a different facet of the book’s premise, using characters with varied reactions and connections to Revival Day (the name given to the day when dead people returned to life in this series) in order to examine it from new angles.

When I said before that Revival is interested in how the return of the dead influences an entire town, this is what I meant. By using what is essentially a crime procedural model, writer Tim Seeley and artist Mike Norton can visit different parts of their setting without needing to abandon what has come before. Dana is a cop, and Em is a “reviver,” so they each have their own reasons for being involved in these small-scale events, and their involvement is the throughline that ties all the shorter tales together. So even while, at its heart, Revival is about two sisters facing enormous, unthinkable horrors in their own ways, the title develops that core concept and relationship by having the Cypresses interact with as many of their fellow Wausau citizens as possible. And sometimes, it moves away from the sisters entirely, following their father Wayne, the chief of police, as he deals with the mayor, the federally imposed quarantine, and the ever-growing mass of people on the border of town who want to get in for a number of different reasons. The Cypress family is the audience’s window into post-Revival Day Wausau, but the things we get to see through their eyes are constantly changing, and touch the lives of everyone in town.

Again, it’s not that Rachel Rising doesn’t explore the town as a whole, nor does Revival ignore the personal dramas of its main characters. The distinction is one of balance, and you can see the separation even in the titles. The name Rachel Rising zeroes the reader in on its protagonist before any issue begins, where Revival refers to a Wausau-wide event. But without immediately establishing Dana and Em’s as strong and complex lead characters, Revival would no doubt have lost me long ago. And the rural, wintry setting of Manson is an integral part of Rachel Rising’s narrative, with the town’s hideous history being right at the center of the series’ current affairs.

Three hundred years back, the people of Manson, like many people in those days, were afraid of witches. In order to put an end to the witchcraft they thought was responsible for many of their problems, they hung every unmarried, childless female in town, about one hundred young women all told. It turns out only four of them were really witches, and helpful ones at that, so the massacre is still a point of some local shame, as well it should be. It is these witches, led by Lillith, the most powerful and least killable among them, who are returning to life now in order to get vengeance against the descendants of those who so mindlessly murdered them. Exactly how that all works, and what Rachel’s role in the conflict will be, remains up in the air, but we at least know by now that Lillith’s magic is the cause of all the recent madness. She fills Manson’s water supply with rats, makes bodies erupt from their graves and land in the shape of a pentagram, and carries out numerous other schemes and machinations as she prepares herself and her accomplishes for whatever their final attack will be. The specifics of her master plan are still unclear, but the scope of her power is obvious, as is her determination to ruin Manson and all who live there. Her fury is centuries old and geographically focused, so while, yes, Rachel Rising is more character study than anything else, its setting is practically a character in its own right, getting plenty of attention and development.

In Revival, the supernatural elements are less defined. Since the debut issue, there has been a long, pale white, ethereal ghost/demon thing lurking in the woods and revealing itself to only a select few characters. And there’s no doubt that this strange being is a major part, if not the sole cause, of Revival Day and its aftermath. It seems to contain the memories of the revivers, and to possibly connect them to one another through telepathic or empathic means. When the ghost/demon inhabits Em’s body, she sees the memories of Joe Meyers, another reviver with whom she is unfamiliar. In that encounter, the creature appears to be standing in for Meyers himself, trying to retrieve something he lost. But even if that’s true, the whys and hows of it are still unknown. Revival relates complete stories along the way, but its unifying mystery is nearly as obscure as when the book began. Rachel Rising is somewhat more straightforward, more or less sticking to a single longform narrative, and has therefore provided more concrete information about what’s happening and why.

I’ve talked a bit about how these two series differ in their tones and approaches to horror, but I haven’t yet dug into what is arguably the most important aspect of those differences: the art. Moore and Norton, like the books on the whole, share many strengths and techniques. They deal with gore similarly, exaggerating it just enough to make it chilling and intense without transforming their respective titles into gross-out splatter comics. Neither story relies on the blood-and-guts imagery as the main source of horror, but they use it freely when called for, and make it count. The two artists also nail the subtlest emotions of their characters, and it seems that, for both of them, this is top priority. Not that they skimp on the other aspects of the art or anything, but capturing the precise, detailed, uniquely human expressions of the cast is where the most devoted work gets done. For Moore, it’s a big part of how he can fill his pages with so much silence; the characters’ faces say so much that they don’t need to speak it aloud. Though Revival is louder and more bombastic, some of its strongest panels are the quietest, those places where the characters are most vulnerable and exposed. The top three that come to mind are 1) Anders Hine, a seemingly senile old man, revealing his inner villain with a single stare, 2) anytime Em’s twisted satisfaction with her newfound immortality peaks through in her smile or eyes, and 3) Dana’s pride at her son’s creativity when she picks up his crayon-drawn comicbook.

Norton and Moore are artists who come across as very sure of themselves. Their linework is confident, becoming heavier or lighter as needed to set the mood, but always strong and stable. They draw winter well, which isn’t as easy to do as it seems, even in Moore’s black-and-white style. Snow doesn’t just wash everything out. Even when it thickly blankets an area, it’s not a coverall. It hangs on houses and trees, slowly slipping toward the ground, either from melting or because of the weight of fresh flakes. Moore and Norton understand this, and use snow as more than merely set dressing. It is actual weather, affecting the world and lives of the characters. Sometimes it’s directly referred to, other times it’s in the background, but it’s always there and it always matters. It has presence and consequence.

Though Norton’s work is maybe a half-step less grounded than Moore’s, they’re actually not all that dissimilar. They work in a relatively realistic style that’s still heightened enough to be especially fitting in their chosen medium. They draw characters of many ages, ethnicities, and body types with equal thought and detail, the same amount that goes into each new location. Certainly they’re distinguishable from one another, but I suspect you’d need to be slightly more versed in the language of artistic technique than I to explain exactly how. Certainly their panel borders and layouts are different, but they both have sparse and clever placement of splash pages, which is something of which I’m particularly fond. Much of what I admire about their individual talents, the things I’ve already discussed that impress me and make me a fan, are the things they have in common. Aside from narrative content, then, the clearest divide between Rachel Rising and Revival isn’t the pencil-and-ink artwork but the color.

As mentioned, Moore works without color, though his shading choices go a very long way. Mark Englert colors Revival, and does an exceptional job of it. In a book like that, where a certain level of realism is needed so the impossible things stand out more explicitly, having the colors be wide-ranging but never attention-stealing is important. That’s exactly what Englert contributes, a plentiful palette of reserved tones, fitting the dreary and/or terrifying moods of the story. The contrast between any black-and-white comicbook and a full-color one is always going to be stark. With the richness and variety of the colors Englert uses, and the somber bleakness of Rachel Rising overall, between these two titles it’s a starker contrast still.

Moore, Seeley, Norton, and Englert are all skilled creators. That Moore can do such great work on his own is inspiring, and Revival is exemplary in that the full team has a collective and cohesive vision from the start. Both Revival and Rachel Rising are strong fantasy horror stories with even stronger, believable female leads, and these are the attributes that initially got my attention. More than a year later (two for Rachel), I’ve stuck with them, and they’ve been reliably rewarding. I count on Revival for fist-clenching tension, and Rachel Rising for a more pins-and-needles brand.

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